"review" · Children's · concenter · music · non-fiction · Picture book · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

{book} a legacy, a man, a company of men, and Ntozake Shange

30 days of pbDay Twenty-Nine: Ellington Was Not a Street

Written by Ntozake Shange

Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster for Young Readers [text: 1983] 2004

ellington2The narrative of Ellington Was Not a Street comes from Ntozake Shange’s poem “Mood Indigo” (from A Daughter’s Geography, 1983). The poem, excerpted for the picture book, is a reflection of and tribute to a legacy of African American innovator, a “company of men” “who changed the world.” It is a personal poem of a young Shange (nee Paulette Williams) whose home nurtured and was nurtured by this company of men.

Only such gorgeously wrought poem could withstand the company of Kadir Nelson’s illustrations. The images themselves (as Sean, an Artist, breathed “precise”) have a precision a poet, too, would recognize.


ellington celebrating-the-duke

You may want to read with some kind of liquid precision the first time through, caught in a rhythm of the words, but plan the time to linger again and again on an image, a deeply impactful moment Shange and Nelson have crafted. It took me a stretch of time to pull away from the cover, then from the portrait facing the title page (‘piano’ image above). I was drawn to circle

our house was filled with all kinda folks

our windows were not cement or steel

our doors opened like our daddy’s arms

held us safe & loved

As the narrative acknowledges the simultaneity of then and now, the illustrations move back and forth in time between the streetscape whether the narrator reminisces and her childhood home. Her home is quiet, interior, full of warm patterns. The street is busy with a different sort of liveliness, other textures that are met with rain. The narrator holds a red umbrella amongst the institutionalized black, a “Don’t Walk” sign flashing at the intersection.

Our narrator, she is small in the presence of the company, her and her brother, and she is small in this house (another of her surroundings), but she is without question present, never forgotten, and cherished (e.g. a man’s suit jacket draped over her as a blanket as she sleeps on the couch).

ellington fps-133397_2zThe images are real, not abstracted. The poem is hardly abstract, but an illustrator could have reinterpreted the narrative into something more ephemeral. The detail in the setting, the verisimilitude of the portrait, the inclusion of a group sitting for a ‘photograph,’ these establish the very real and tangible existence of the life/lives represented.

Ellington Was Not a Street includes two pages of biographies using excerpted images from the narrative, “More About a Few of the Men ‘Who Changed the World’:” (I will list them as the book does) : Paul Robeson, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois, Ray Barretto, Earlington Carl “Sonny Til” Tilghman, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, Virgil “Honey Bear” Akins, The Clovers.

The endpage at the close shares narrative the in its stanzaic form of “Mood Indigo.” Of course “Mood Indigo” is also a musical composition by Duke Ellington, so exquisitely observed on the vinyl held by our narrator on the cover: the record, an RCA Victor special of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra. I have a YouTube option, undoubtedly a lesser quality, if you are interested.

Do I really have to say it? You really must find a copy of Ellington Was Not a Street.

ellington cover


Ntozake Shange, Barnard College, Reid Lecture, November 1978 via Barnard College Archives

Poet, performance artist, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. She earned a B.A. in American Studies from Barnard College in 1970, and then left New York to pursue graduate studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It was during this time that she took the name “Ntozake” (“she who comes into her own things”) “Shange” (“she who walks like a lion”) from the Zulu dialect Xhosa. She received an M.A. in American Studies from USC in 1973. […] She is the author of multiple children’s books and prose works, including Some Sing, Some Cry (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), If I Can Cook You Know God Can (1998), See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983 (1984), Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel (1982), and The Black Book (1986, with Robert Mapplethorpe).

Kadir Nelson is an award-winning American artist whose works have been exhibited in major national and international publications, institutions, art galleries, and museums. Nelson earned a Bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. […] Nelson has also gained acclaim for the artwork he has contributed to several NYT Best-selling picture books including his authorial debut, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball”, winner of the Coretta Scott King and Robert F. Sibert Awards, and was published by Disney/Hyperion in the spring of 2008.

His corpus thus far is extensive: Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (2011); Nelson Mandela (2012); He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands (2005); Baby Bear (2014); Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit (2009); Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, words by Carole Boston Weatherford (2006)…. you can find listings here and here.

{images belong to Kadir Nelson, words to Ntozake Shange}




resting in peace

Maya AngelouThursday, May 28, 2014
Statement from Dr. Maya Angelou’s Family:
Dr. Maya Angelou passed quietly in her home before 8:00 a.m. EST. Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension. She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is extremely appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.
Guy B. Johnson


“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”– Maya Angelou Her words have been my refuge at times; and I am happy to still have them. Her physical presence has left us with an incredible legacy of actions and words as refuges to curl into and foundations upon which to stand tall, push back, speak boldly, and love courageously. Her soul was liberated from earthly limitations a long time ago, and she will continue to live on in hearts and minds she has likewise liberated. the world is better for having had you in it my beautiful wise poet. thank you.


angelou singsa long-time favorite poem: no doubt familiar to you.

Caged Bird


A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing? Copyright © 1983 by Maya Angelou.

poet-related · recommend

{poetry} gary jackson

“Multiple Man: Guest-Starring Me & You” 

  by Gary Jackson

Every night I sleep on alternate

sides of the bed, as if to duplicate

sleeping with you. If

I’m fast enough, I’m the warmth

of my own body beside me, reach

out and touch myself. Breach

the blue of my bones, breathe in my own ear.


You left me. Lying here,

I left you to be with me.

Someone asks if your body

was worth trading for mine.

My sin was always pride.

Did you want a man that sleeps

with himself to keep

the bed warm? I need you like the earth

needed the flood after dearth.


About this poem:  “That first night you’re back to sleeping alone again, expecting another body beside you, and the physical absence is so jarring that you think what if I could become the body I miss? Multiple Man could do it, but I can’t. And of course he’s a mutant superhero, because I can’t help myself.”—Gary Jackson.

{via poets.org}


Home from Work, I Face My Newborn Mutant Son

—by Gary Jackson

from Missing You, Metropolis 

I hold my six-pound baby boy

in my hands, pink as sand.

His skin is glass.


This is not a metaphor.

My wife did not hemorrhage alone

on our wood floor for metaphor.


Even now, he squirms—his small cries

are like the whine of well-worn brakes.

He cuts into my palms and slides


in the creased blood. I see

his tiny organs getting used to their work,

while my wife—bled out—grows cold.


What paper-bag test can this boy pass?

His skin reflects the white of my eyes.

And I know he cannot last.


For a moment, before I drop him,

I wonder how he’d make it?

Even if his skin does harden—to


crystal, to diamond—it won’t be

enough, and I could not bear the sight

of him hanging like an ornament,


a glass boy from a tree, or find him

cracked open, splintered in the street.

As he shatters on the floor,


everything from his heart to lungs

freezes like the hands

of a wristwatch at ground zero.


{via Graywolf Press; the ‘.’ are mine to combat spacing/formatting errors.}


gary jacksonGary Jackson was born in Topeka, Kansas. Missing You, Metropolis, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is his first book published, however, he has had other works published in inscapeLiterary BohemianMagma, and others. He recieved his Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of New Mexico in 2008.
Of Poet Gary Jackson’s work and his first collection Missing You, Metropolis (Graywolf Press 2010) in particular.
—“Jackson integrates the comic-book world of superheroes like Spider-Man and Batman into his world as a black adolescent in Kansas. . . . The finale is gentle, almost anticlimactic, as he recalls how his superheroes let him ‘inhabit a world a page removed from our own,’ hinting at the grace of (temporary) escapism.”—San Francisco Chronicle
—“Jackson masters a parallel universe in verse.”—The Brooklyn Rail
—“Jackson’s love for the comic genre shines through in this collection, making it a must-read for anyone who appreciates the form.”—PWxyz, the blog of Publishers Weekly
p missing you—“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never read a comic because his deft maneuvering between the inner lives of mutant superheroes and the “mutant” perspectives of the wayward and the Other works towards this poet’s primary subject: time.  Looking back on the past— recounting the losses of friends, family, and old selves—refracts a vision of our future and who we might become. And so Jackson describes a photograph of children as “Our bodies an ellipsis on the snow field: / leading us nowhere on a blank page.”Missing You, Metropolis is a heartbreaking debut that leads not to nowhere but to the knowledge that how we embrace our childhood wonder determines how we arrive at adulthood.  For Jackson, that wild route is as circular as it is circuitous, and his first collection suggests that, for his benefit and ours, he is a poet who will wander far and never grow old.”  —Jennifer Chang for Poetry Society of America, “Gary Jackson, selected by Jennifer Chang: An Introduction to the Work of Gary Jackson
more poems…
Graywolf Press provides sneak peeks of Jackson’s collection, here.
“Gap” is published in Issue 3 (Feb 2009) of Literary Bohemian, here.

Gary Jackson reads “Nightcrawler Buys a Woman a Drink”

"review" · concenter · fiction · juvenile lit · mystery · poet-related · recommend · wondermous

{book} hold fast

a lengthy, shockingly spoiler-free, post for Blue Balliett’s latest. This isn’t an apology, merely an acknowledgment. There are so many lovely and terribly relevant explorations … 

hold fast cover

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett

Scholastic Press, 2013.

hardcover, 274 pages.

Where is Early’s father? He’s not the kind of father who would disappear. But he’s gone . . . and he’s left a whole lot of trouble behind.

As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers. Because her father hasn’t disappeared without a trace. There are patterns and rhythms to what’s happened, and Early might be the only one who can use them to track him down and make her way out of a very tough place.

With her signature, singular love of language and sense of mystery, Blue Balliett weaves a story that takes readers from the cold, snowy Chicago streets to the darkest corner of the public library, on an unforgettable hunt for deep truths and a reunited family.~publisher’s comments.

Important: late Middle English: from medieval Latin important- ‘being of consequence’, from the verb importare ‘bring in’.  Adjective: of great significance or value, likely to have a profound effect on success, survival, or well-being; having high rank or status; significantly original and influential.

I am sketching out a list of “important juvenile fiction books and authors.” You should know that I think books and writers are important period, but this list is for those who place intimate conversations of a social and creative consciousness into the hands of young people. Blue Balliett is located with indelible ink on this list. With Hold Fast, Balliett has used her considerable gift  to not only pen a compelling mystery, but to raise awareness for the plight of our homeless children. She also returns with her signature take on the brilliance of young minds. If you’ve read Balliett, you understand how singular she is, and she just keeps getting better and better.

Meet the Pearls:

“Taken with a cell phone camera, this family portrait: Dashel Pearl, his wife, Summer, and their kids, Early and Jubilation, a daughter and a son. They live in Woodlawn, once feared as the home of Chicago’s most powerful gang, but now a quieter place. The family sits in two tidy rows on the chipped steps of a brick building, knees to backs, parents behind kids, hands sealing the foursome. Boy by girl behind girl by boy: symmetrical and smiling. The father is pale, the mother dark, the kids cocoa and cinnamon. Eyes in this family are green, amber, and smoky topaz.” (5)

They live in the largest apartment they can afford: a one bedroom primarily furnished with found objects. Dashel gets around by bicycle year round to get to public transit.* She stays home with 4 year old Jubie. Early, 11, attends school. They are saving for a house, like the one they pass on family walks “that invites dreams” (7).

Dashel’s love of reading and words with meaning is infectious. The family keeps notebooks of quotes and words. He tells his children, “words are everywhere and for everyone […] words are free and plentiful” (6); and they are empowering. Dash also shares his love of Langston Hughes. “What’s the rhythm, Langston?” is often heard. Dash, adopted as a baby and then lost those parents young, grew up in a number of foster homes. “He didn’t have a parent or grandparent to give him advice, but Langston seemed to do just as well. […] Dash had told Early that this famous poet was a rainbow mix, too, like Sum and probably Dash himself: Langston had African American, white, Jewish, and Native American roots. And, like Dash, Langston had grown up without much love or a steady home” (87). Hughes spoke often of dreams and their importance, and this spoke to the Pearls.

When Dash goes missing the readers are equally unsure what might’ve happened to him. It doesn’t look good even before his disappearance is complicated by the arrival of criminals breaking-into the Pearl’s home in a pretty scary sequence that leaves Sum, Early and Jubie without wallet or home. We are quickly introduced to the everyday realities of families who haven’t had it as good as the Pearl’s. The neighbor lady (whom they only know by sight) and others are surprised by Sum’s ignorance of how to navigate social rescue/welfare organizations and numbers. Worse is when profiling really kicks in by our greater institutions—and noticeably not by the homeless shelter workers.

“Something terrible has happened to keep my husband away, we’re terrified, have had to leave our home, have been robbed, lost our savings, and our family has done nothing wrong. Now, aren’t the police supposed to protect people like us?” (72)

“I realized something awful in that room today. That when you’re this poor and without money or an address, hardly anyone thinks you’re worth listening to or helping. Just the words living in a shelter make you you someone the police aren’t too worried about, less than your average citizen when it comes to rights. And now that Dash is missing, the fact that he’d been a man with a job, a family, and a home doesn’t seem to count. Seeing how excited the detectives were about [spoiler], I knew they cared more about [spoiler] than the man. Or us.” (132)

Early’s response to the latter being the understatement of the year: “Dang,” Early said, swallowing hard. “That’s scary.” It is of interest that the mother’s realization is expressed well after Early’s experience at school where children can be really cruel and adults can be inept. Children see and know more than they are often credited. And their resilience is not an excuse to continue to ignore their vulnerabilities.

The novel clings to the compassionate as it collides with the hardness of people and life. Balliett moves the reader in thoughtful ways, using the mystery and Early’s youth and smarts to guide the reader through a book that refuses to look away from its subjects. I love how authors employ humor to counter-weigh the complex and often ugly moments of a book, but I savor and admire the juvenile fiction author who can rely on other, rarer, charms. Balliett threads hope to counter-weigh, she employs a light, and this is a different smile, and it comes before the story’s end.

The structure of the novel is of import to the pacing of its heart-felt, brain-felt 274 pages. The Pearls, we learn, keep a notebook of onomatopoeia. The chapters (but for the first and last) are named after “C” words that are onomatopoeia. Each have smaller sections that begin with each word and hold thematically. The breaks move and relieve the reader along a linear timeline of the 3rd-person limited variety. We follow Early who uses words and rhythms in ways the book demonstrates. Each of those “C” words come with definitions where in the chapters reiterate their meaning. Early shares words, the author introduces each character with the intention of their names. Dashel “Dash” (p 15) increases with significance in characterization—and in light of the title: Hold Fast. And of course, that opening definition and intention that opens the novel grounds everything:

“Home, from the Middle English hom and Old English ham. Noun: a place to live by choice, sometimes with family or friends; a haven; a place of origin, comfort, and often of valued memories.

“By the end of the 2012 school year, an estimated thirty thousand children in the city of Chicago were without a home. This number does not include those living in the surrounding suburbs, and is thought to be low.”

According to the “Acknowledgment” at the end of the book (after p 274), Balliett did a lot of research, talked to a lot of people. The novel would portray a sense of what homelessness would look like for Early and her mother and brother, and touch on the experiences of other’s situations with equal gravity. Some of the compositions are stark, others strongly inferred, and all of it touching.

“Facts on the homeless vary, depending on what you read and how statistics are collected and presented. Shelter rules also vary. Not to be questioned, however, are the harsh realities of homelessness. Sadly, they have nothing to do with fiction.”

I mentioned hope, and one such beacon is Early. Early keeps her head up, and both her self-awareness and the awareness of her surroundings is necessary to this hope-fullness. Aged 11, Early is a creative force to be reckoned with—though I have no reason to believe she is unique in her ability rise up against the hardships that would hold her down. She relies on the hope of seeing her father and rightly believes in her ability in solving the mystery of his disappearance. She has doubts, which coincide with the reader’s, artfully instigated by the clever author. But she has notions that keep her going, that enquiring eye of hers searching out rhythms, patterns, riddles and connections to be solved, or at the very least contemplated. We have the mystery unfolding to keep us turning pages, but time is harder on Early and she needs more than the mystery to balance out despair. Enter the energizing effect of a creative energy that empowers and enlists hope and fits snugly into the import of holding fast to our ability to dream.

Enlightened by her situation, head-up and engaged, Early starts to notice, to really look at people (thinking of Waive) and her surroundings—and to question: “How come there are so many homes standing empty in Chicago and so many people like us who don’t have a home? How come those empty homes aren’t being fixed up and filled with people who need a place to live” (171)?

It is a question Balliett bids the reader to linger over in her “Note:” “As of October 2011, the city of Chicago reported roughly fifteen thousand abandoned buildings, most the result of foreclosure. They sit silent, haunting the neighborhoods that surround them. With an estimated thirty thousand homeless kids in this city, the questions are obvious. Luckily, so are the dreams.” “The dreams” are a nod to Early’s idea for project (202-3) and its yield (253-7). Balliet novels believe in a children’s capacity to be powerful agents of change. That children are brilliant.

Brilliant: late 17th century: from French brillant ‘shining’. Adjective: (of light or colour) very bright; exceptionally clever or talented; outstanding; impressive; very good, excellent, or marvelous. Noun:a diamond of brilliant cut.

And it isn’t only in Hold Fast that someone(s) would thieve [from] the brilliant.

There are some points in the novel that are especially difficult. One is what and how much Summer (the mother) leaves to and confides in Early. In a lot of ways it is necessary in informing Early and the reader for the sake of the plot. But it also points to Balliett’s bold consistency of character and allowing for that kind of discomfort. Jubie is 4 and a product of the environs of those 4 years; this adds incredible tension. As for Early and Summer: children in tough circumstances grow up quickly at the loss of childhood, and (no matter how good a parent) the grief and depression of an adult after the loss of a loved-one takes a toll. Summer is left very much alone, the family alienated of relatives and community. Add the burden of societally placed barriers and inconsistencies and there is a lot of unfairness to pass around. There are plenty of places in which we could intervene. Hold Fast relays grim realities even as it models a compassion toward those too oft robbed of the dignity of its reception. Compassion is a first step.

Dreams (by Langston Hughes)

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Dash places this poem in the family notebook (54), and the next poem in sequence is Hughes’ “What happens to a dream deferred?”, which reflects a real life tension in the novel. Hold Fast’s antidote for despair is to continue to hope and dreams fuel our hope,** while minding Hughes question and the final line of its poem.

Balliet’s incorporation of such impacting artists and their translation into such intimate spaces, such as a young person’s mind, provides an incalculable worth to her novels. Balliet writes good mysteries, mysteries with unexpected textures, with complexities that make for a rich and rewarding read. I love how empowered and inspired her young protagonists are towards using all of their selves creatively and determinedly.

I find Balliet entertaining, but I acknowledge that a lot of the thrill comes from admiring her craftiness. But does “entertaining” necessarily translate as “mindless?” There are plenty of fluffy reads to excite many a reader and they hold a place, but I do hope those many find a more challenging read, an important book now and again that gifts an awareness that makes us a better human.

recommendation: ages 8-13, boys & girls, would be nice to read w/ a grown-up and plan some sort of service project, to say nothing of penning dreams and starting notebooks. for the creative-minded (aka anyone); for bibliophiles; the impact of word, book, libraries, teachers, and poets is awesome in Hold Fast.

of note: it would be tempting to refer Balliett books to those kids who have tested into gifted programs, whether it be reading, writing, math and/or spatial…or any who benefit from atypical curriculum. but one of the many things that impresses me with Balliett’s books, is how you can pick out adults who believe in the potential of the child protagonist and invest in them, sharing their time, intellect, creative play… In honor of Balliett, I wouldn’t dare underestimate any child’s needs or abilities. I would encourage and child (and adult) to give one of her novels a go. Hold Fast is as good as any a starting place.

*noticed the other (very wintry) day the sheer number of Denver’s service sector/day laborers that use bikes to get around; w/ educated guesses that they have to use them to reach public transit as well, bus lines and bike lanes relatively wasted on multi-car-owning neighborhoods.

**A Dianna Wynn Jones quote comes to mind (thanks to Sarah), “nobody ever solved a problem while believing it was hopeless.”

I pulled my definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary (US version)

my review of The Danger Box.


{poetry} poem in your pocket day

It is Poem in Your Pocket Day! A day where you carry a poem in your pocket to share with those around you; an opportunity to share and converse and connect with people through poetry.

I have Margarita Engle’s “Archetype” poem in my pocket. Consequently, it also fits in with the Once Upon a Time Challenge.



by Margarita Engle


Is it true that nothing reveals more

about a person’s secret heart

than the adult memory of a favorite

childhood fairy tale?


I never understood all the fuss

about princesses poisoned

or rescued from dragons.

Hansel and Gretel seemed like a recitation

of the sorrowful evening news

a serial killer, the ovens, absent parents

a famine, crumbs . . .


Instead of magic beanstalks and man-eating giants

or wolves disguised as gentle grandmas

I chose the tale of a bird with a voice that could soothe

the melancholic spirit of an emperor

helpless despite his wealth and power.


Of all tales, only The Nightingale felt

like a story I knew before I was born

about Orpheus calming wild beasts with his lyre

King David’s harp easing Saul’s despair

Saint Francis with his curious flocks of birds

singing back and forth in a language of wishing

that even the wolf understood.

poet-related · Uncategorized

{poetry} cities & theatres

The daughter has been taking a Poetry for one of her Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) classes. The quarter culminates in a Poetry Cafe where the students read some of their work aloud. Natalya has given me permission to share two of the poems.

The first is a Found Poem one of her other teachers told her how to do. She was reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities at the time so the lines of the poem are found in Invisible Cities.

Invisible Cities

The messenger describes,

in gardens of magnolias,

of the cities Zora, Despina and Zirma.

With pinnacles of skyscrapers,

with women chattering as they weave raffia rugs,

he tells of the half-sophornia

with the shooting galleries,

and of Leonia

whose rubbish grows,

landslide danger looms.

The mute informant

express himself only with gestures,

walks in gardens of magnolias,

not existing,

telling through dreams and memories.

–Natalya Lawren (14 Feb. 2012)

The following is an original piece she will be reading today. (note: she is still working on punctuating it)

Night’s Theatre

Night descends

like fierce owl

hunting mice and moles;

while dusk fades

like dust swept away.

And sun retreats

battle lost

to replenish troops for another day.

Silk curtains are drawn back


a silent wood upon a stage

with harps and flutes and butterflies

and they begin to play.

Trees sigh, the birds sing,

as harp and flute accompany.

Yet as midnight nears,

they tire and begin to wane,

trying to stay awake in vain.

The twilight curtains draw,

now robust red,

and as bells chime

they are thrown aside

for Puck has come to play!

Bounding across the wooden planks,

to rejoice in chaos and absurdity.

Though strong stands this theatre of stars,

eventually it must tire,

and show begins to flicker,

as the sun rallies loudly

with blaring sounds

The night’s theatre fights bravely,

but you must wake,

and deep sleep you must forsake

As dawn breaks doors

to scar starry skies

with bloodshot eyes.

And though there are choices we can make,

the day-lit sky we must partake.

‘Til again we lay our heads to sleep

this theatre our minds shall keep

with mem’ries of fair lunar shore

and whispered dreams from faerie lore.

–Natalya Lawren (Feb.2012)


N has been working more determinedly on her poetry. She is more consciousness in trying to achieve end rhyme and has playing with structure. [You know those rhyming games in the car and those hours with Seuss? A pleasant side-effect is a child who loves free-verse.] “Night’s Theatre” captures N in process. The first stanza is what she has been doing. As the poem progresses you can see a more conscientious narrative. And while she always revisits her diction, she began to revisit later stanzas to create greater balance and end rhyme.

N was determined to write a Shakespearean Sonnet, so we reviewed meter (which I am iffy on on the best of days), but it (and this quarter) made for a lively discussion on content, structure, and meter. She has been trying to integrate what she is learning into the voice she has been growing since birth. As for the Sonnet: she thought she had the theme and the meter and form, but she didn’t have the structuring of the content. She’ll return to it. I hope she does. I look forward to watching her continue to learn and grow.

I need to find her some mentors, some poets.


{image: illustration by Jam San}

"review" · fiction · Lit · poet-related · recommend · Uncategorized · wondermous

{book} the curfew

To begin: When the publisher claims at the end of their synopsis that Jesse Ball’s “The Curfew is a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination,” you may think it an excitable exaggeration. It isn’t. Nor is Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s observation that “There seems to be no other novelist writing today who is capable of so thoroughly disarming one’s narrative expectations.” Writers and Readers alike: prepare to be equally intimidated and inspired.

Those who have read Jesse Ball–and adore him, I would recommend you The Curfew. It has all the fluid strange mesmerism of Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors (my favorite), while pushing creative boundaries: for both author and narrative. One sitting would be best for this darkling daydream.

William and Molly lead a life of small pleasures, riddles at the kitchen table, and games of string and orange peels. All around them a city rages with war. When the uprising began, William’s wife was taken, leaving him alone with their young daughter. They keep their heads down and try to remain unnoticed as police patrol the streets, enforcing a curfew and arresting citizens. But when an old friend seeks William out, claiming to know what happened to his wife, William must risk everything. He ventures out after dark, and young Molly is left to play, reconstructing his dangerous voyage, his past, and their future. An astounding portrait of fierce love within a world of random violence, The Curfewis a mesmerizing feat of literary imagination.~publisher’s comment

As you may guess from the synopsis, The Curfew is set in a dystopia. But one should not expect extensive world-building. Those familiar with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale understand atmosphere can be derived from a precision of language, of image. Ball is no more superfluous. The effect is startling, and embarrassing to the next tome in line.

Ball maintains a tight focus and casual periphery. His cast, their world, is small, often claustrophobic and other times cozy. He creates a randomness that can remain random and yet also gain greater significance as the narrative continues. In The Curfew, the violence collects into a pervasive sense of fear. By the time the father must go out after curfew, you are terrified for him. Those stories, those small everyday interactions between characters slip into a deepening pool from which the novel draws emotion. That “fierce love” left me breathless, the ending left my hands trembling.

When those ministers of “show don’t tell” jab you repeatedly with their red pen, few are recommending the level of revelation The Curfew attains.

The novel is written in the shifting between 1st and 3rd person, holding present tenses. The 3rd person narrator? Oh, but I’ve been pondering this. I believe it to be a figure such as the one discussed on pages 126-8. And if so…the implications. The Curfew is told in three Parts (or Acts). They become increasingly abstract. As the reader becomes more and more attached to the little girl and her father, the movement away from the concrete is for the better–a beautiful coping mechanism.

Ball likes to mind the visual impact with dash (–) introductions to dialog, unexpectedly fluid segues, font shifts. Riddles* make their return, though with a more overt role. His repetition of images, the novels preoccupations (seats, strings, epigraphs, lies, “ideas,” etc). The use of puppetry takes on a more surprising presence than I’d anticipated; not that I figured it would remain as obvious as “people as puppets,” but the use of the puppeteer’s narrative structure (105-6), compounded by Ball’s, is marvelous.

The Curfew is a puzzle. On a primary level, the reader understands what is going on. By that ending–on another level–you are not entirely certain. This should not repel you. The response could very well be my own as I may be denying what I am being told. However, I do believe there are cues to suggest a second or third look, none of which I am going to share before your first reading. The result is an expansion of narrative possibility. The Curfew is a complex work that can be read very simply. But why you would leave it there, I’m not entirely sure.

Ball has an elegant hand with the bizarre; which may not resonate with the greater audience. The father was a world-renowned violinist. His new job is for a Mason, consulting with people and writing epigraphs for headstones. The daughter is mute and clever and irrepressible. The mother is perceived differently by the father and the daughter, but haunts both. You learn of them through external interactions, dialog, encounters. They are exactly as they seem in an environment where little is certain. Aren’t they?

There is an old-world feel despite the sense that the setting could occur anywhere, anytime. There is a surreality in even the most mundane, in the quiet and sorrowful moments that enthrall the reader. And ultimately, there is an aching familiarity; this is where empathy and fear take hold and linger long after the book closes. What does happen to the father? What happens to the little girl?

There is an ending. But I guarantee it will have you working your way back through to the beginning, after a recovery period. And you won’t hate Jesse Ball for doing that to you, submerging you back into the book. At least, you mightn’t.


recommendation: I understand that I really respond to Jesse Ball’s writing on a level that challenges articulation, especially with only one reading of the text. While The Curfew takes notable departures from previous novels, I would recommend you start with either Samedi the Deafness (a suspense thriller) and/or The Way Through Doors (a love story) and enter them with an open mind, patient, clear of expectation; this way you can get the style of his writing (voice/form). my reviews for: The Way Through Doors and Samedi the Deafness

For fans of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. For those who like Poetry, Riddles, Literature, the Absurd. Not to be read in proximity to lengthy dystopian fantasies (for both their sakes).

of note: I was reminded of the film Children of Men (2006), as well as the book The Beauty & The Sorrow by Peter Englund in that explanations for the current State are intimate and limited to a character’s understanding of the events/context and their pertinence.

There are conversations The Curfew broaches regarding Art, the Individual, Oppression, Ideas, etc. that I didn’t even touch, partially to keep the “review” relatively spoiler-free. I would love to talk about any of them.


*I am bad with riddles, but I wasn’t put off. However, I would like to read this with someone who is good at them.


The Curfew by Jesse Ball : vintage contemporaries, 2011. 195 pages, tradepaper.

{images: 1) a promo sticker Jesse Ball created for book’s release via Vintage Books/Anchor Books tumblr. 2) cover. }